Thursday, April 24, 2008

(False) Hero Worship

When I was younger and more interested in the creators who worked in the comic book medium, I was much enamored of the work of a gentleman named Will Eisner. Mr. Eisner had, among many other things, created a character called The Spirit. At one time he was part owner of what was, essentially, a kind of sweatshop outfit that produced comic book stories for various publishers. One of the publishers for whom he provided stories was Quality Comics, then one of the major players in the profitable comic book industry of the 1940s and early 1950s.

While the owners of Quality Comics could publish all of Eisner’s Spirit comics, the creator had been sharp enough to retain ownership of the title character, his name, and his image. Including all of the supporting characters. When Eisner was called away by the armed forces of the USA to serve during WWII, the publisher realized that he might lose the owner of the character and thus be unable to continue publication of the popular series.

Thus, a solution was found by having another artist on the payroll create a character that was, essentially, the same as The Spirit in all but name. And so the soon-to-be-famous Jack Cole was put to work creating Midnight who was, save for slight details, indistinguishable from The Spirit.

During my younger years, in the mid-60s, back issues of books featuring The Spirit were difficult to find. They’d been out of print for some time, and there was the old problem of so many comics from that era having either been consumed in paper drives, or hard to find because of faltering sales as children began to find their fantasies on the TV screen rather than in books and comics. I had only a couple of The Spirit comics briefly published by Harvey to witness the near-genius of Eisner’s power as an illustrator and storyteller.

Since I was just a young kid, I had no idea or interest that Eisner had once owned what was, basically, a sweat shop that churned out huge volumes of comic book pages to sell to various publishers. There were several such operations during the finest days of the comic book industry of the Golden Age of Comics, and so there’s no real shame or crime in that. I have read of complaints of low payments in these “studios”, but since I’m not able to cite them, we’ll let that ride.

Years later, Warren Publishing gave Eisner a new venue for reprinting the classic Spirit strips in magazine format with full-color covers. These, too, were fantastic and I was once again impressed with the pure brilliance of Eisner’s ability to tell a story by way of sequential art. If there was anyone better at this than Eisner, I had yet to discover him, and wouldn’t until I finally got my hands on some EC comics and found work by a man named Bernard Krigstein who was even more skilled and visionary than Eisner.

I consumed the Spirit stories over the years and my admiration for them never waned. But as the years advanced I began to take a more serious look at the series and at one of the characters:

Ebony White.

In those days, it was customary for all of the costumed heroes to have a sidekick. Eisner’s choice to serve as the sidekick of the resourceful and powerful Denny Colt/Spirit was a black kid named Ebony White. Ebony spoke in a kind of pidgin dialect that was considered the norm for African Americans in those days. The word balloons attached to Ebony were packed from top to bottom, side to side with apostrophes as the kid demolished the English language. He was a classic RACIST caricature.

However, worse than this attempted humor via Ebony’s speech patterns was that The Spirit’s sidekick was illustrated to resemble a monkey. This is, of course, the classic racist stereotype of black people instigated by the most virulently racist among our Society. It is indescribably cruel. I cannot today understand how an adult who is in full control of his faculties could have been able to illustrate such a character and not wonder about the effect such an image would have on both the people to whom it appealed, and upon the people on whom it was inflicted as a perverse form of humor.

When, in my 30s, one of my black friends who was also a comic book fan explained to me why he found The Spirit to be so monumentally offensive, I had to agree. For the first time I had to look upon the series, and its creator, under a new light. I no longer sought out the work of Eisner. I didn’t want to read any more Spirit comic books. While I hadn’t been the one who illustrated the stories (and so could feel no guilt for that), I had read them initially with no critical eye toward the obvious hateful racism portrayed by the character of Ebony White, faithful lackey to the noble Spirit. I had, in effect, either enjoyed the racism inherent in the tales, or chose to ignore them.

Some months later, I told the friend who had explained to me his offense upon seeing Ebony White that I was going to be able to see and hear Mr. Eisner speak at a convention. He requested that I ask Eisner about the character of Ebony White and to specifically ask if he felt any regret over having created Ebony to look and act and sound just so. I promised that I would, if given the chance.

And so, I did this. As it happened, I had the opportunity to ask Eisner about this both one on one in a hallway conversation, and later at a panel sponsored by the convention folk. In the personal conversation, I quickly came to understand that he’d been asked this question quite a number of times and that he was a bit weary of it. But he sighed and hemmed and hawed and finally gave me the following excuse:

“Those were different times.”

Indeed. I know those were different times. My own parents were victimized for not succumbing to such racist thoughts and images and for standing against them in their southern community. I was well aware of the “different times”, and I was also aware that not everyone took part in such moral crimes. But our conversation was at an end and he wandered off.

Later in the day, at the panel, I was determined to ask him if he was at least sorry for the way he had portrayed Ebony White. I raised my hand a number of times and there were always others doing the same and being chosen. But I kept at it. Finally, a young man—a black man—raised his hand and asked the specific question I wanted to pose.

“I find the character of Ebony White to be very offensive, Mr. Eisner. Are you sorry for the way you portrayed him?”

Eisner was quiet for a while. After a bit he muttered the same thing about those having been “different times”. The man who’d asked the question asked again.

“Yes. But are you sorry for the way you drew Ebony White? To look like a monkey?”

Eisner lowered his head, considered for just a second, and said, “No.”

Next question, please.

Below is The Spirit, created by Will Eisner:

Below is Midnight, contracted by the publisher to copy The Spirit should something unfortunate befall Eisner while in the armed forces:

Below is Ebony White, created and illustrated by Will Eisner:

Below is Gabby (at his master's leg), created to stand in for Ebony White:



Stephen said...

Wow! That was shock. Thank you so much for posting this blog and taking a stand against racial prejudices.

HemlockMan said...

You're welcome.

I find racism the most hideous trait of human beings. Not far behind that, though, is the hypocrisy of someone who knows better--in this case, Will Eisner.

Daniel Kian said...

As I interpret Gabby, he is a monkey because someone (perhaps Jack Cole) was not simply refusing to have a black character treated as less than fully human, but obliquely commenting on such characters.

HemlockMan said...

I don't know much about Jack Cole's politics or attitudes on race. I do know that he was no dummy (despite his subsequent suicide). And of the two men, he was a much finer artist than Eisner.

Was he making a political statement? Hell if I know. It's a nice thought, though, that he would take such a dig at the monstrously racist icon that Eisner created.